Luna 15 nearly got the ‘scoop’ on Apollo 11

June 7, 2019
by Mark Ollig

July 13, 1969, three days before the liftoff of Apollo 11, the Soviet Union launched the Luna 15 spacecraft from Tyuratam in the USSR.

Luna 15 obtained Earth-orbit and began traveling towards its destination: the moon.

Newspapers around the country reported the Soviet Union had launched a space probe, and it was heading to the moon. They knew little else about its mission.

No information about the Luna 15 space mission was being released by the Soviet Union.

Questions and concerns arose in our country about what was being called Luna 15’s “mysterious mission.”

Some people felt it was a desperate attempt to interrupt the historic moon landing mission of Apollo 11.

US astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, discounted suggestions of Luna 15 interfering with the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon. He said the possibilities of encountering the Russian ship orbiting the moon were “infinitesimal.”

One day before Apollo 11’s July 16, 1969 launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, newspapers were writing about the Soviet Union’s Luna 15.

“Soviet Officials Mum On Luna 15 Mission” was the front page headline in one New York paper, The Post-Star, published July 15, 1969.

“Robot Riding Aboard Luna?” suggested another headline seen in the Florida Today newspaper.

July 15, 1969, The Minneapolis Star newspaper wrote an article, speculating Luna 15’s mission may be to “gather [moon] samples.”

Many of the newspaper articles I found from July 15, 1969, cited “unofficial Soviet space sources” saying Luna 15 was equipped with a detachable robot which could perform specific tasks.

Soviet Cosmonaut Georgy T. Beregovoi agreed with the suggestion that Luna 15 could be a “moonscooper,” meaning, the spacecraft would land on the moon to scoop up some moon soil and then take-off with the lunar samples safely stored inside a capsule that would land in Russia before Apollo 11 got back to Earth with their lunar rock and soil collection.

We eventually learned Beregovoi was correct. Luna 15 was to land on the moon, get a few scoops of lunar soil, and then head back to Earth.

Yes, folks, the Soviet Union tried to get the lunar scoop over the United States.

July 17, 1969, the Luna 15 spacecraft arrived at the moon, and soon achieved lunar orbit insertion.

Apollo 11 arrived at the moon and began its lunar orbit July 19, 1969.

July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their way from the command module, named Columbia, into the lunar module, named Eagle, and prepared for their descent to the surface of the moon, and their place in history.

Sunday, July 20, 1969, at 2:17 p.m. Minnesota time, the Eagle landed on the moon.

Meanwhile, the Luna 15 spacecraft continued its orbit around the moon.

Luna 15 was sharing the moon’s orbit with Columbia, piloted by astronaut Michael Collins.

No encounters or radio disturbances occurred between Columbia and Luna 15 while they shared lunar orbit.

July 21, 1969, just two hours before Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off from the moon aboard the Eagle to rendezvous with Columbia and head back to Earth, Luna 15 began its descent towards the lunar surface.

During the spacecraft’s descent, it was said, Russian space officials became alarmed by information being received from Luna 15’s altimeter. It showed “wildly varying readings for the projected landing area,” and that the spacecraft was flying over rocky lunar terrain.

As Luna 15 got closer to the moon, its guidance system adjusted the spacecraft to the wrong altitude; it was also traveling at an irregular angle above the lunar surface.

Communications abruptly stopped four minutes after the firing of Luna 15’s engine for slowing the spacecraft’s descent.

While flying at a speed of nearly 300 miles per hour, the spacecraft smashed into the side of a mountain, thus ending the mission of Luna 15.

NASA’s website confirmed Luna 15’s crash site at Mare Crisium, which is just northeast of the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquility. The distance between them is about 740 miles.

A sad ending for Luna 15; however, one of the benefits from its mission was the first genuine thawing of tensions in the Soviet versus US space race.

US Astronaut Frank Borman, who commanded Apollo 8’s flight around the moon in December 1968, spent nine days in Russia on a goodwill trip during the first week of July 1969. While there, he met with Soviet cosmonauts and the heads of the Soviet space program.

Borman established new friendships and valuable contacts with the Russians involved in the Soviet space program.

Given NASA’s concerns about having two spacecraft orbiting the moon at the same time, Borman was asked by the head of NASA’s Mission Control to get in touch with his contact at the Soviet space program.

Bormann was granted exclusive access to the US-Soviet hotline to contact Dr. Mstislav Keldysh in Russia.

During this communication, he voiced NASA’s apprehension regarding the possibility of the Russian and American spacecraft’s radio transmissions interfering with one another.

Borman also expressed to Keldysh, NASA’s concerns of an accidental crossing of orbital moon flight paths, which would present a dangerous situation for both spacecraft.

The Russian Space Agency eased NASA’s concerns by providing the orbital flight paths of Luna 15. They also agreed to update NASA with any flight path changes that may occur during the mission.

After the hotline call, NASA hosted a press conference led by Chris Kraft, the head of Mission Control.

He assured the press, Apollo 11 and Luna 15 would not interfere with, or come close to each other during their respective missions.

The crew of Apollo 11 returned to Earth July 24, 1969, bringing with them 47 pounds of moon rocks and lunar soil.

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